Beer basically consists of four things: hops, barley, water, and yeast. The hops add that flavor that we’ve come to know as beer, but without yeast, no one would experience its intoxicating effects. Of the more than 1600 strains of yeast, only a select few can ferment sugars into alcohol. While most yeast, which is a fungus, comes from rotting fruits, bugs, or animals, a new strain being used by Rogue Brewery in Newport, Oregon, came from a most unlikely place—the master brewer’s beard.
The Rogue brewers had been searching for an exclusive yeast to match with their homegrown barley and hops and sent three samples they found in their hop yard to culture. Sample after sample failed to produce yeast that would ferment.
Someone joked that brew master John Maier’s 34-year-old beard might be a perfect medium to grow yeast. He agreed to try it, and plucked nine hairs from his beard, which were sent to White Labs for testing and culturing (culturing makes it seem as if the hairs watched opera and read Shakespeare, but it means they were primed to grow yeast). It turns out, Maier's beard hairs can produce yeast—and pretty decent yeast at that.
Maier’s beard yeast is a blend of Rogue’s workhorse yeast, Pacman, and a wild brewer’s yeast. Wild brewer’s yeasts act unpredictably, only fermenting some of the alcohol, but in the case of the beard yeast, it worked so well that it created a crisp flavor not typically associated with the unruly varieties. It was such a shock that the scientists at White Labs double-checked the results because they feared they had accidentally profiled the Pacman yeast instead of the beard yeast.
This caused us to wonder why Maier’s beard has such an interesting yeast blend. It turns out that yeast isn’t very mobile. Someone or something has to transport the yeast. But, these fungi grow uncontrollably in places like a brewery. So unknown to Maier, he was a walking Petri dish for the Pacman yeast used at Rogue. And he might have picked up the wild yeast from eating something fruity, creating this unique blend for beer. The brewery notes that Maier's beard has attended more than 15,000 brews, making it the perfect habitat for this unusual yeast.
When Maier, who vows never to cut his beard, learned that his facial hair was home to a unique yeast blend, he said, “It was in front of me the whole time and it only took two centuries and five decades to grow.”